Friday, July 23, 2010

Editorial Anonymous' Identity Revealed!

Are you intrigued? Curious? Can't wait to find out more?

That's how I want my readers to feel when they open my book.

And, yes, I totally made up the title to get you to read this post, because I don't believe in giving my stories false, exciting hooks, and thus have a very important question that I didn't want you to miss:

How, as a reader, do you connect readers with your character at the beginning of the story? What makes you, as a reader, connect with a character at all? What is that magical scenario, that balance between information and voice, situation development and character development?

I'm not sure why, but I've always been drawn to reading and writing characters with a lot of...shall we say, room for growth. They're not exactly...nice. But they are spunky.

Here's some examples of what I'm talking about:

#1: “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too...
...So when she was a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby she was kept out of the way, and when she became a sickly, fretful toddling thing she was kept out of the way also... the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.”

#2: “...Today I chased a rat about the hall with a broom and set the broom afire, ruined my embroidery, threw it in the privy, ate too much for dinner, hid in the barn and sulked, teased the littlest kitchen boy until he cried, turned the mattresses, took the linen outside for an airing, hid from Morwenna and her endless chores, ate supper, brought in the forgotten linen now wet with dew, endured scolding and slapping from Morwenna, pinched Perkin, and went to bed.”

#3: “...Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the world's ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.
“Entrails. No hissing. That is the closest we will ever come to love.”

I'm assuming these sound familiar to you. #1: The Secret Garden. #2: Catherine Called Birdy. #3: The Hunger Games. And these examples are all from the first two pages of each book. So why do we love Mary and Catherine and Katniss despite their hard exteriors and harsh beginnings?

Okay, it seems so obvious now that I write it out, but I believe the answer is clarity. In each example, the author got around very quickly (again, in the first two pages) to letting us know why her character was so hard. Mary Lennox was neglected by parents who thought little of her and soon died; Catherine was treated cruelly and belittled; Katniss was forced to harden herself to protect and provide for the sister she loved. Gosh, who wouldn't be a little rough around the edges in such circumstances?

The danger for authors less brilliant than Burnett, Cushman, and Collins, I think, is that it's tempting to leave all this back story as a mystery for the reader to discover later in a breathtaking moment. (Um...or maybe that was only me...) Which would be really great—except everyone will already have put the book down because, let's face it, the character comes across as a brat.

So...sorry for misleading you with that title; I hope my post has provided some clarity as to why I would sink so low as to lie to you, and perhaps I have likewise given some clarity to anyone who was as confused about this matter as I.

Anyway, that's my big idea for the day: clarity. But how would you answer my question? What do you do to strengthen your readers' connection with your character? Please comment so we can all learn from your wisdom!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An abstract view of things

Here's a great game/exercise I learned in acting class which has done wonders with my characterization (on stage and on page).
It's called, "Character Abstracts". Here's how it works:
Think of your character--who they really are, not what they look like, sound like, etc. And ask yourself the following question:
"If my character was a ______ (drink, car, animal, song, fabric, building, musical instrument, pizza topping, place, and so on), which would they be?"
Keep in mind, you are not asking what they would like--for example, not what car would they drive or what beverage would they drink--but rather trying to get to the real essence of your character and discover what they are.
Here's a few examples, using my character Jenny:
If Jenny was a beverage, she would coffee. She's a little hard to get used to perhaps, a little brusque and bitter, but she is strong and invigorating and some people really love her. Maybe by the end of her story she'll have let some cream and sugar creep in.
If Jenny was a musical instrument, she would be...a flute. Bright and piercing and beautiful, though a little difficult to play at first.
If Jenny was an animal, she would be...a lynx. To be honest with you, I haven't completely figured this one out yet. It's just I saw a lynx at a zoo and it gave me the feeling of Jenny. Not how she looks or anything like that...just how she is.
I'd love to hear what your characters are! Join me in this little game in the comments!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A poem for Monday

This is a little long, but one of my favorite poems ever written. I keep thinking about it all the time, and wanted to share it with you!

by Joyce Kilmer

Why is that wanton gossip Fame

So dumb about this man's affairs?

Why do we titter at his name

Who come to buy his curious wares?

Here is a shop of wonderment.

From every land has come a prize;

Rich spices from the Orient,

And fruit that knew Italian skies,

And figs that ripened by the sea

In Smyrna, nuts from hot Brazil,

Strange pungent meats from Germany,

And currants from a Grecian hill.

He is the lord of goodly things

That make the poor man's table gay,

Yet of his worth no minstrel sings

And on his tomb there is no bay.

Perhaps he lives and dies unpraised,

This trafficker in humble sweets,

Because his little shops are raised

By thousands in the city streets.

Yet stars in greater numbers shine,

And violets in millions grow,

And they in many a golden line

Are sung, as every child must know.

Perhaps Fame thinks his worried eyes,

His wrinkled, shrewd, pathetic face,

His shop, and all he sells and buys

Are desperately commonplace.

Well, it is true he has no sword

To dangle at his booted knees.

He leans across a slab of board,

And draws his knife and slices cheese.

He never heard of chivalry,

He longs for no heroic times;

He thinks of pickles, olives, tea,

And dollars, nickles, cents and dimes.

His world has narrow walls, it seems;

By counters is his soul confined;

His wares are all his hopes and dreams,

They are the fabric of his mind.

Yet -- in a room above the store

There is a woman -- and a child

Pattered just now across the floor;

The shopman looked at him and smiled.

For, once he thrilled with high romance

And tuned to love his eager voice.

Like any cavalier of France

He wooed the maiden of his choice.

And now deep in his weary heart

Are sacred flames that whitely burn.

He has of Heaven's grace a part

Who loves, who is beloved in turn.

And when the long day's work is done,

(How slow the leaden minutes ran!)

Home, with his wife and little son,

He is no huckster, but a man!

And there are those who grasp his hand,

Who drink with him and wish him well.

O in no drear and lonely land

Shall he who honors friendship dwell.

And in his little shop, who knows

What bitter games of war are played?

Why, daily on each corner grows

A foe to rob him of his trade.

He fights, and for his fireside's sake;

He fights for clothing and for bread:

The lances of his foemen make

A steely halo round his head.

He decks his window artfully,

He haggles over paltry sums.

In this strange field his war must be

And by such blows his triumph comes.

What if no trumpet sounds to call

His armed legions to his side?

What if, to no ancestral hall

He comes in all a victor's pride?

The scene shall never fit the deed.

Grotesquely wonders come to pass.

The fool shall mount an Arab steed

And Jesus ride upon an ass.

This man has home and child and wife

And battle set for every day.

This man has God and love and life;

These stand, all else shall pass away.

O Carpenter of Nazareth,

Whose mother was a village maid,

Shall we, Thy children, blow our breath

In scorn on any humble trade?

Have pity on our foolishness

And give us eyes, that we may see

Beneath the shopman's clumsy dress

The splendor of humanity!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New England Author Tour (NEAT) Part 2.3: Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn. "
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Let's start this trip with some dialogue, shall we?

ROSE (in the car, filling us in on the short bio of the author's life):...and it was while she lived there that she really got thinking about abolitionism, because she learned that the family's servant was an escaped slave with a price on her head.

REGINA: What?!

ROSE and FAITH (in unison): A price on her head—because she was a slave.
REGINA: Ohhhh. I thought you said she had LICE on her head! And I was, like, what does that have to do with abolitionism?

Now if you're thinking Regina's a ditz, you're totally wrong. Honestly, it was really hard to hear; as you may recall from my previous posts about that day, it was pouring rain. And we all had a pretty bad case of the giggles. I include the story to illustrate a point: you don't always know as much as you think you do.

Basically, I had always admired Harriet Beecher Stowe. I read Uncle Tom's Cabin in high school and was as moved by it then as thousands of Americans were when it was first printed. But I was unprepared for how much I would be moved by visiting her home. I had expected the tour of Mark Twain's house to be the highlight of my day, but I found that the unassuming gray and white house next door to the Clemens mansion had more to offer than met the eye.

I wish I could have taken pictures to show you, but again there was a “no inside photos” policy...but the general feeling was one of amazement at how much of Harriet was in her home. It was no mansion, friendly or otherwise: it was a home. It was clear that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a woman who loved—that almost defined her—and that love and peace overflowed into her home. Despite being financially comfortable, Harriet took her role as mother and housewife very seriously: no nannies or maids for her, thank you. Her kitchen was functional but friendly (did you know she was a homemaking engineer—as the guide put it, the Martha Stewart of her time—and developed a more efficient kitchen design that is still in use today?); the parlor was pretty and welcoming; even the hallways were graced by Harriet's lovely but modest collection of books and artwork...several Madonna and Child paintings could be found on the first floor alone, which seemed very fitting with Harriet's motherly personality.

To conclude, I have a new hero. Harriet Beecher Stowe did so much of what I hope to: she was a talented, hardworking writer; she was a loving wife and mother; she was a happy and efficient housewife; she was a lover of learning and art; she believed in taking an active role in the world. And she was passionate about everything she did.

"It is this everlasting mediocrity that bores me."
-Harriet Beecher Stowe

If you're not impressed yet, let me finish with this fact: Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote all of Uncle Tom's Cabin while she was mothering seven children. Yep. To go back to Regina and borrow a phrase she likes: 'nuff said.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Peacemaker (in honor of Independence Day)

This is the last poem Joyce Kilmer wrote before his death in the First World War.
Only when I really try can I read it without crying.
Thank you to every soldier who "fights for freedom"... You are in our prayers every day.

The Peacemaker
Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,
   For Freedom’s sake he is no longer free.
   It is his task, the slave of Liberty,
With his own blood to wipe away a stain.
That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.
   To banish war, he must a warrior be.
   He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,
And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.
What matters Death, if Freedom be not dead?
   No flags are fair, if Freedom’s flag be furled.
Who fights for Freedom, goes with joyful tread
   To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled,
And has for captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head
   Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.